A is for Innovation--Toyota's Secret Startup Society


This look at the A-1 Contest, Toyota's enigmatic breeding ground for innovation, reveals what exactly that A stands for!

The significance of support from executives

Every year, some 100 Toyota Group employees participate in the A-1, pitting their business ideas—not limited to cars—against each other.

To begin, participants form teams amongst themselves. Each team then spends around four months conducting background research and refining their business model, before making a final presentation to Toyota executives.

From these presentations, the grand prize is awarded to the business model that truly addresses customer needs. Previous winning ideas range widely from sports medicine to education support, with some going on to become external startups or events within Toyota.

First held in 2017, the A-1 contest has run for five straight years, drawing participants of all ages.

Although the A-1 is a voluntary activity outside of work hours, Toyota executives also get involved as mentors.

In the leadup to final presentations, teams can discuss their business model with these senior officers as often as they like, receiving advice based on years of experience.

“I hope the A-1 will help you move beyond yourself.”

Chief Sustainability Officer Yumi Otsuka and Frontier Research Center President Nobuhiko Koga explained what they hope to see as mentors.


I think it's great that there is a platform for figuring out what you want to do and turning that into action, and I support it.

That said, entrepreneurs in the outside world have a motivation that burns hot as magma. I want you to be no less ambitious. Toyota employees have the genchi genbutsu mindset drilled into them, and I think that can serve as your advantage.


The real starting point for a business is when it goes out into the world. For those foolhardy participants who want to keep moving forward and are able to set aside the desire to have their project seen and appreciated, we will spare no advice.

I hope you will use everything the A-1 and we mentors can offer to help you leap beyond the confines of the work given to you.

A shady secret society

The person behind the A-1 concept, Doi, joined Toyota in 2015 and was assigned to a role improving dealership operations, but the zeal for creating new businesses never left him.

He took to secretly discussing business ideas with colleagues before work, which became the catalyst for organizing the A-1.

In those early days, however, they were seen as a shady clique...


People even commented that we were acting like some sort of secret society.

Even so, the vision I spelled out in my proposal resonated with a growing number of people, and we were able to make the A-1 happen.

Doi assembled an organizing team that shared his desire to “make Toyota more interesting,” and the first contest was held in 2017.

The words offered by one senior colleague on that occasion have become a cherished general principle for the A-1.


I was told, “It’s all well and good to do the A-1 as an extracurricular activity, but you also have your regular job. If you don’t deliver 120% there, this won’t be allowed to continue.” And that’s completely true.

The A-1 is not a place you escape, but the first step toward realizing your dreams. That’s why everyone taking part first and foremost pours their energy into their regular job.

Only then do we make the time to work together and give shape to our ideas. That’s how you create genuine value.

Five years on, this philosophy has spurred more members to get involved in running the contest.

The A-1 has grown from something of an underground movement to a contest that draws in many people.

And yet, being an after-hours voluntary activity means that contest winners receive no budget or personnel to get their businesses off the ground.

What, then, is the goal for the A-1?